Salvation in the World’s Religions Unitarian Coastal Fellowship June 16, 2013 © Rev. Sally B. White Salvation in the World’s Religions. In some religious traditions, salvation is the whole point. In other traditions, salvation is beside the point entirely. This morning, lets talk about salvation from the perspectives of Unitarianism, Universalism, and various world religious traditions from East and West. Reading: A story from Bill Houff, from Infinity in Your Hand. The story is called Flying Fish. [Pp. 116-11]. Message: Theology is an academic discipline, and soteriology is the branch of theology that deals with theories of the meaning and the means of salvation. I would like to begin by reading an excerpt from a textbook I used in seminary: Christian Theology: An Introduction. The author, Alister McGrath, writes, “Salvation” is a complex notion. It does not necessarily have any specifically Christian reference. … Salvation can be a purely secular notion, concerned with political emancipation or the general human quest for liberation. “Even at the religious level, salvation is not a specifically Christian idea. Many – but not, it must be stressed, all – of the world’s religions have concepts of salvation. They differ enormously, in relation to both their understanding of how that salvation is achieved, and the shape or form 2 which it is understood to take.” [Alister McGrath. 1997. Christian Theology: An Introduction. pp. 386-7]. “Salvation.” Maybe it can be a purely secular notion, but in common use, it’s a religious word, and that certainly does make it complex. For religious concepts touch us at spiritual and emotional levels, and these are more affecting, more reactive, than the more restrained level of our intellect. Nonetheless – or perhaps I should say therefore – it is useful to begin by looking at the derivation of the word itself. Our English word salvation comes from a Latin word, salvare, which means, “the action of saving.” But salvare is a Church Latin translation of the Greek word soteria (to save, or to make safe). And there are some who point to an even earlier Greek root, sozo, which means, “healing,” or “making whole.” [http://www.believershomepage.com/wholeness.htm]. This is the derivation I prefer: salvation as healing and health and wholeness. This exercise in word derivation reveals two quite different attitudes about salvation. An understanding of salvation as “to save, or to make safe” implies that, in the absence of salvation, we are lost, or unsafe, or somehow threatened. But salvation as healing has a different connotation, one of inherent health and wholeness, which may, at times, be lost, but which can be restored. As we look around the world, and the world’s religions, we can find both attitudes, and we can see them to be rooted in different understandings of ultimate reality and ultimate truth: the nature of the universe, the nature of humanity, and the relationship between the two. 3 Surely these are among the most basic of religious questions. As is the question about “what happens after I die?” which for many is the ultimate context for thinking about salvation. Among the most ancient religious traditions we know are those that originated in India, and the oldest of these lives on today as Hinduism. In Hindu philosophy, life in this world is nothing more than a transient manifestation of an eternal reality, an eternal truth, a universal spirit that is within us and all around us; that contains us and is contained within each one of us. Nothing tangible is really real – not even ourselves, for “I” am only an illusion. In the Hindu poem Bhagavad-Gita, we read, “as a [person] leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves [its] mortal body and then puts on one that is new. … Beyond the power of sword and fire, beyond the power of waters and winds, the Spirit is everlasting, omnipresent, never-changing, never-moving, ever One.” [Bhagavad-Gita 2:22,24]. Each person lives a life, and then dies, and then is reborn again and again, in an endless cycle. Each life is a fragment, a spark, of the everlasting, omnipresent, ever One Spirit – temporarily clothed in a temporal body; something like a fish out of water. The ultimate goal, the ultimate hope, is for the spirit to be freed from this cycle of being clothed in one after another mortal body; it is to be released from this earthbound life and allowed to dissolve back into eternity – a word that means timelessness. The Hindu word for this is moksha: liberation, escape, freedom, deliverance. We can think of it as “going home,” as the flying fish goes home to the water from which it came. 4 In Buddhism, the cycle of birth and death and rebirth is called samsara and we are bound to the cycle by our illusions about what is real and what is impermanent, by our attachments, our desires, and our cravings for the things of this world. Buddhist thought teaches that, through diligent practice over many lifetimes, one can learn to let go of these illusions and cravings and achieve nirvana, a state of perfect peace and the end of the suffering that illusions and cravings create. Nirvana is not a place where one goes – not the water as distinct from the air, not heaven as distinct from the earth – but rather, nirvana is a state of non-being altogether. One is not in the water; one is the water. Hinayana, the older school of Buddhism, is dedicated to the salvation of the individual through monastic self-discipline and practice. Mahayana Buddhism developed slightly later, and proposes the ideal of salvation for all, through disciplines of popular devotion and universal secular service. [Heinrich Zimmer. 1989. Philosophies of India. p. 18n]. These Indian religious traditions imagine earthly life as a particular manifestation of the one reality that is, at once, creator and creation, God and the world. Life – birth into the world – in some sense limits our ability to participate fully in that oneness: we are restricted by the mortal body, by the ego, by the spiritual garments that confer upon us what we think of as our identity. And salvation removes those restrictions, returns us to full participation in reality, even though in truth, we were never really separate at all, except in our limited, human understanding. What happens after we die? We return to where we came from, we are free – and we cease to be. When we achieve nirvana, we are “blown out,” as a candle flame. And we are deeply, entirely, at peace. 5 In contrast, the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – understand God and the world to be distinct and different from each other – like the flying fish is substantially different from the water or the air. The world is not the embodiment of Spirit, but is, rather, the creation of God. God may have many aspects or attributes, but God is, somehow, a being, so that it makes sense to think that God should have a name, and ears to listen – or not. And human beings are also creatures, but we are not divine; to think ourselves so is some kind of blasphemy. And there is no sense of cycle upon cycle of birth and death and rebirth, but rather a linear journey through time, from a nothingness before birth through one life on earth. The question of what happens after we die, then, looms large in these traditions. In Judaism, the oldest of the three, God has a special relationship to the Jewish people. At the very beginning of creation, the world was a perfect place – God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good [Genesis 1:31]. Things soon began to deteriorate, and Biblical history is the chronicle of covenants in which God lays out for the Jewish people how they should work with him to make themselves and the world better. Commandments and laws are to be followed, to the end that finally, at the end of time, at the End of Days, everyone in the world will be absolutely good, every person will do only that which is absolutely fair and just, and there will be no hunger, no war, no injustice or meanness, every day will be a day of freedom, and every person will be the image of God. [Harry Gersh. 1971. When a Jew Celebrates. p. 9, 249-50]. Salvation, then, is not individual, though it depends on the shape of one’s individual life, and how one has worked to make not only the world but also humankind better. Rather, 6 salvation is the redemption of good and honorable people from the exile which is living in this state of less-than-perfection. The Jews have been chosen as exemplars, showing the way for all people. But anyone who honors God and lives a good and holy life may, at the End of Days, participate in the Kingdom of God in which original goodness is restored. Until that day, during life one works towards goodness; after death, if one has lived a good life, one waits until the Kingdom will come, and one will live again. Christianity emerged out of Judaism. In Christianity, salvation is individual, and it is mediated through Christ. Alister McGrath writes, “The distinctiveness of the Christian approach to salvation lies in two distinct areas. In the first place, salvation is understood to be grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; in the second, the specific shape of salvation, within the Christian tradition, is itself formed by Christ.” [Alister McGrath. 1997. Christian Theology: An Introduction. pp. 387]. Rather than waiting for the future establishment of the Kingdom of God, some Christians imagine that kingdom to be already established, not here on earth, but rather in heaven. Each worthy individual, at when they die, is transported or reborn to that place. The variations on the theme are many, and no doubt familiar to you. In some, God is somehow more present in heaven than on earth. In some, there is a concept of hell – a different destination after death, or perhaps just not-heaven. But a key concept in Christianity is the unworthiness of most individuals; they are imperfect or broken, sinful or evil. Divine intervention, in the form of Jesus’ teachings, or his crucifixion, or his direct saving influence, is necessary to confer worthiness. Salvation, then, is saving in the sense of making safe from the danger or the threat of 7 not-heaven, or of hell, or of eternal separation from God. And there is an imperative about salvation, for the alternatives are unthinkable. Even so, there are traditions within Christianity which echo the Jewish concept of working together to make a better world for all, drawing on teachings in which Jesus exhorted his followers to feed the hungry, care for the sick, fight injustice, and make this world a better place. In Islam, which also arises from Jewish roots, salvation is also seen as admission to heaven after the end of a life on earth. Like Christianity, Islam recognizes that human beings commit hurtful or unskillful acts – bad deeds – that qualify as sins. But in Islam, we are born sinless. We will err, for we are imperfect, but God is merciful, and God forgives those who sincerely repent of their sins and replace bad deeds with good deeds. In Islam, salvation is earned by right action, and not just by right belief. Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in Christianity, but both traditions dissented from the Christian position that most people will not be saved. Historically, neither tradition disputed the central concepts of God, of human nature as less than divine or perfect, of an afterlife that was somehow, somewhere different from life on earth. But the Unitarians believed in the saving power of human character and human action in the world. Through the use of reason and willpower and hard work, it was within the power of every person to develop a high moral character, and thus earn salvation for themselves. Universalists had a different emphasis, believing that God, by nature, was a loving deity, and would never consign any human being to eternal suffering or separation from God. Somehow, in the end, the Universalist God would find a way to save every single person. Salvation, 8 for the Universalists, was truly universal. Thomas Starr King, who was raised a Universalist in the first half of the nineteenth century and later served as minister in a Unitarian church, famously said, “the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn us forever, and the Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.” [Richard Trudeau. Universalism 101. pp. 48, 83]. Today’s Unitarian Universalists tend to focus more on this life than on an afterlife that we can only speculate about. We tend to invest our energies in working to bring healing, health, and wholeness to this world, however transient or impermanent this world may be. “Salvation,” Alister McGrath writes, “is a complex notion.” There may, in truth, be as many ideas about salvation as there are ways of living – or names for God. In the end, in this life, it is all speculation. In the end, in this life, we need not think alike to love alike. Let there be a time of silent reflection, on all that we have heard, spoken and unspoken. The bell will lead us into silence, and music will lead us out. Bell Silence Music May it be so.